Political Watch

Can the ANC and the country survive South Africa’s next transition?


Like it did 22 years ago, in line with global developments, South Africa has again entered a time of dramatic changes. If it does not come to grips with the process, the governing African National Congress and the country might become one of its victims.

At this stage the signs are not too promising for the party, with its governing alliance already in tatters, but more importantly with its reaction to how the process is playing itself out, it could pull the country as a whole down into a protracted period of civil unrest and economic decline.

At the heart of the present crisis is that, since the country’s transition to democracy in 1994, the ANC has deliberately integrated party-political power and state institutions to such an extent that it allowed an elite cabal, led by President Jacob Zuma, to capture the state and management of the economy for its own interest. In the process, most of the population were left behind – feeling betrayed and frustrated.

Also read: Time has come to liberate SA from 'liberation'

It is also important to note that this feeling of alienation from the ‘political elite’ by the ordinary population was an important factor in the so-called Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and in the surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.

Also read: US presidential race highlights democracy’s global crisis

                 Brexit exposes dangerous global fault lines

The broader picture

In the hype of the dominating news of the day, be it the release of Nelson Mandela and unbanning of the ANC and other organisations in 1989 or the recent Public Protector’s (PP) report on ‘state capture,’ the bigger picture often gets lost.

It is often forgotten that the developments of the late 1980s, which facilitated the negotiations for a peaceful transition to democracy in South Africa, came on the back of dramatic international developments.

At the time, the Cold War period came to an end, accompanied by events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and civil uprisings in Eastern Europe’s erstwhile Soviet vassal states.

When announcing the unbanning of the ANC and others, President F.W de Klerk, the last apartheid head of state, said: “The collapse of the Soviet Union helped to remove our long-standing concern regarding the influence of the South African Communist Party within the ANC Alliance.”

An article on South African History Online states: “The collapse of the USSR in 1989 meant that the National Party could no longer use communism as a justification for their oppression”; and

“At about the same time, the ANC was reaching a similar conclusion that it could not achieve a revolutionary victory within the foreseeable future. The State of Emergency, declared by the South African Government in 1986, and the collapse of the Soviet Union – which had traditionally been one the ANC's main allies and suppliers –  led the organisation to adopt a more realistic view of the balance of forces. It concluded that its interests could be best secured by accepting negotiations rather than by committing itself to a long and ruinous civil war.”


The end of the Cold War was followed by the era of globalisation and the development of the ‘global village’, with profound effects on the structures of the world economy and the economies of nation states, the global financial structure and the power relationship between global corporations and national governments.

Not all of these impacts were positive, especially for the working and middle classes in the world, and were helped along by the ‘internet of things’, which destroyed millions of job opportunities worldwide.

As the election of Donald Trump and Brexit illustrate, there is a rebellion brewing against globalisation. Some commentators observed that societies globally are undergoing a profound and disruptive transition.

What the outcome of the process will be is, at this stage, not possible to predict. But that the process is in progress and will bring many challenges, there can be no doubt about.

Under the pressure of voters, some leaders, like Mr Trump and a number of European leaders, are reverting to nationalism. There are signs that a second Cold War might be brewing.

In May 2014 we reported: “The reality of a new global geopolitical divide between East and West took a huge leap forward last week with the signing of no fewer than 40-plus documents of cooperation between Russia and China. South Africa will not escape the implications of this new reality.”

Also read: Africa’s risks placing continent in middle of new Cold War

Lessons from past

During the late 1980s, aided by a thoroughly professional intelligence service and under the leadership of Mr De Klerk, the government of the day, arguably after years of denial, recognised the realities of global processes.

The response was to make peace with those realities and to be proactive. As a member of De Klerk’s parliamentary caucus at the time, I can testify that during debates in that caucus we were urged to put the interest of the country first.

Interestingly enough, there were problems not too dissimilar to some experienced in the present political crisis in the country. For one, not everyone in the security establishment was happy with the developments.

What, however, was markedly different is the reaction by the top government leadership at the time. The following passages from South African History Online tells it all:

“State President F.W. de Klerk announced that 23 members of the South African Defence Force (SADF), including two generals and four brigadiers, were being forcibly retired or suspended. This followed the findings of a commission of inquiry into illegal or unauthorised activities by the SADF, set up under Lieutenant-General Pierre Steyn;” and

“The information presented by General Steyn was evaluated variously as ‘vague’, ‘strong possibilities’, ‘probably true’ and ‘confirmed’.”

Despite the reservations in the latter passage, similar to what is presently being expressed from ANC and government circles about the PP’s state capture report, De Klerk decided rather to err on the safe side. A following passage informs us: “Some of those involved were later exonerated. The offending units were immediately shut down and intelligence activities were restructured according to De Klerk's orders.”

In sharp contrast, President Zuma – clearly in a conflict of interest, being personally implicated – is doing his utmost to frustrate any action related to the PP’s report.


In the late 1980s and ’90s the then government and top ANC leadership took proper notice of the realities, both internationally and domestically. While it facilitated the South African ‘miracle’ of a peaceful transition to democracy, its present denialism and narrow, misplaced perception of self-interest have become serious threats to its own future and that of the country and all its people.

by Piet Coetzer

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